No matter what, he HAD to see the comet


Burlington County Times (New Jersey)

Wednesday, April 30, 1986

Op Ed page – Page 9


By Joseph M. Laufer


            I’m one of those people who HAD to see Halley’s comet – no matter what!  Otherwise I’d never live it down. One local newspaper had my picture on the cover of its magazine section, calling me “Halley’s Advance Man.”  Another paper called me the “prime mover of American popular interest in the comet this time around.”  So I had to get a look.

Joe Laufer, "The Comet Man" surrounded by his comet paraphernalia


            The fact is, I saw the comet six times: twice from the roof of the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia in December, twice from the ballpark in Vincentown in January, once from the sun deck of the SS Norway in the Caribbean in March and once from Long Beach Island (New Jersey), on April 13, 1986.  It is this latter event which I wish to describe here.


            I discovered that having attained a certain degree of notoriety because of Halley’s comet could be interpreted as either a blessing or a curse, depending on the performance of the comet and the nature of the company in which one found oneself.  As the time available for comet viewing quickly began to shrink, I began to get nervous.  I had been a bit selfish in getting several view of the comet independently – that is, without my family.  I kept assuring myself – and them – that we would have a special family viewing sometime before the comet left.


            It wasn’t until I returned from my comet cruise in the Caribbean on the day before Easter that I realized that the greatest of all tragedies faced the Laufer family – the possibility that only I would have seen the comet.  How could my 14-year old daughter, Kerry, face her 8th grade classmates (who sat through one of my comet lectures earlier in the year) if she hadn’t seen the comet?


            And my 15-year old son, Kurt, whose teachers had taken to calling him “Kid Comet” because his dad had been warren up in the paper for his comet capers – would he be able to live it down?  And poor Kevin, 10, and Kris, 9, they had accompanied me to the Franklin Institute in December to see the comet, but the clouds rolled in before they could get their look.  Their chances of being around in 2061 were pretty good, but that was little consolation if they missed it this time.


            But most of all, there was my wife, Penny, who had been interviewed by reporters over and over again and called a “comet widow” with me on the SS Norway, but on the only cloudless morning (4:30 a.m.) that the comet was really visible, she was asleep awaiting my call.  However, after the brief view that I had of the comet, the clouds rolled in before she could get to the deck to see it.


            So here it was, the last week for reasonable viewing in the northern hemisphere.  Would the weather hold out? The first few days of April were cloudy.  I recalled what I had written for the October issue of LIFE Magazine – that there would be about 50 opportunities between November and April to view the comet – provided that all 50 nights were cloudless.  The fact is, that almost two-thirds of the viewing nights during that period were cloudy in our part of the country.


            I have to credit Kerry with forcing the issue.  All during the first two weeks of April she begged me to call her early in the morning if I planned to look for the comet.  She said that she HAD to see it!  Finally, on Saturday night, April 12, the forecast was for very clear skies over New Jersey.  According to our comet charts, Halley was due south, just a few degrees above the horizon and visible at about 1 a.m. (on April 13).  I asked the clan if they were prepared to go down to the shore (less than an hour’s drive from Vincentown) at about 11:30 p.m. for a 1 a.m. encounter with Halley’s comet.  Only Kevin was a bit reluctant to make the trip, but finally he gave in (he really had no choice!).


            The temperature was about 50 degrees as we packed everything into the car: two sleeping bags for the beach, two pair of 7 x 50 binoculars, one pair of 7 x 35 binoculars, a “Halleyscope”, and Astroscan telescope, a compass and a pen-flashlight.  The 48-mile drive went much quicker than our occasional summer trips to Long Beach Island – no traffic!  We had the key to a friend’s beach house, if we needed it.


            However, we decided to head for the southern tip of the island – to the National Wildlife Preserve just beyond Beach Haven Heights – for the most unobstructed view south as possible.  The only problem was that Atlantic City, with its many lights was the next island down the coast – although it was slightly to the4 west and therefore hopefully would not pose too much of a hindrance to dark-sky viewing.


            There were only a few cars on the island as we headed to the southern tip.  Much to our surprise, as we approached the parking area, we noticed at least 20 cars there.  Lots of people had the same idea we had.  That kind of spontaneity really excites me – and I had a good feeling about the evening’s possibilities.


            We made our way over the beach to the ocean’s edge, where we laid out our blankets.  We had about half an hour before the comet would be visible.  Several people had their telescopes aimed due south.  We checked out our compass to make sure.  Atlantic City glistened brightly, slightly to the west.


            As 1 a.m. approached, the binoculars and telescopes having been distributed, we all were scanning the sky in the appropriate location.  I was having no success with the binoculars when Kurt, who was using the Astroscan, called me to inform me that he thought he had it.  The Astroscan telescope was listed in last October’s Consumer Reports as the best telescope in its price range for finding Halley’s comet.  The endorsement was ratified by Kurt’s discovery.

Kurt (13) and Kerry (12) Laufer model Comet T-shirts in 1983. They were 15 and 14 in April, 1986 when they saw the comet.


            I confirmed that what he had captured in the telescope indeed was Halley’s comet – the little fuzz ball triangularly located between two crisply focused stars – the same comet I had seen two weeks earlier in the Caribbean.  I tried again with my binoculars and the Halleyscope, but only the Astroscan was picking it up.  So we all lined up for several views each of Halley’s comet – a truly family event which none of us will ever forget.  Kerry was especially pleased, and, of course, Kurt was taking all the credit for having found it.


            My wife, Penny, feeling sorry for all the other folks who had delayed their sleep to see this celestial visitor, invited them to view it through our telescope – and most of them gratefully accepted.  Kurt kept it lined up as perfect strangers came over to take a look.  It appears that of all the folks on the beach, we were the only ones who actually found it.  One of the viewers asked if that was our car with the license plate “2 COMET” – and when assured that it was, seemed confident that the object we said was Halley’s comet really was!


            As far as I was concerned, this was my “official” sighting of the comet – April 13, 1986.  It was a family event in a perfect setting.  It was almost too good to be true.  I knew that we all would cherish the memory for years to come and that if any of the children were around in 2061, they would vividly remember the circumstances of the event.  True, the comet was only a hazy fuzz ball – yet each of us saw it and KNEW that we were witnessing something very special.


            After about forty-five minutes, we all lined up for our last look, then packed up everything and headed back to Vincentown.  Five people very quickly fell asleep, satisfied that an important goal was attained that night and confident that they could face their friends and answer in the affirmative that they had indeed seen Halley’s comet.


            For the driver, there may have been a few yawns on the way home, but the trip went quickly.  Would that I kept a transcript of the thoughts that went through my mind during that drive home.  I had seen the comet for the last time.  It wouldn’t have been right if the rest of the family hadn’t seen it – and I was grateful to the Almighty for having made this viewing so very special.  We were very lucky, as the clouds moved in the next day and it rained for an entire week!  We had seen the comet on the very last day it would be visible to us with the equipment we had.  We were VERY lucky, indeed!


Joseph Laufer is the Associate Dean of Community Services at Burlington County College.  He is editor and publisher of the Halley’s Comet Watch Newsletter and President of Halley’s Comet Society – USA.  He has traveled, written and lectured on the subject.  He and his family live in Vincentown.

This article was also reprinted in the Halley's Comet Watch Newsletter, Volumne 5, Number 3 - May, 1986.

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